It seems to be a very wide spread claim that Australia was started as a British penal colony. When I first heard of it as a young kid, I envisioned some crime infested dystopia like in the movie Escape from L.A.

From those claim it seems that the main reason for the initial British colonization of Australia was not territorial gain, mercantile (creating new markets for British goods), resource excavation or military, like in the colonization of Africa, America and the conquest of east Asia, but the creation of a Penal colony.

Was the main reason for the colonization of Australia the creation of penal colonies, or was it only a side affect of the vast unexploited areas that the already established Australian colonies had?

Examples of the claim online:

here, here and here

  • Why are you skeptical of this? Penal transportation is very well documented in the historical record.
    – rjzii
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 22:19
  • @RobZ, I hope it's clearer now.
    – SIMEL
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 22:49
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    So you are asking about the motivations of the UK Government?
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 23:15
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    @Oddthinking, I'm asking about the policies of the UK Government, (I think that in those times it was the crown). An answer that compares the number of criminals vs. non criminal colonists will do this trick quite nicely, and preferably the volume of trade in comparison to other British colonies to show the importance of Australia to the contemporary British economy.
    – SIMEL
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 23:22
  • @RobZ, in the wiki article the most relevant sources are dead, so at least there it's not very well documented.
    – SIMEL
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 23:27

1 Answer 1


Yes, a vast majority of the people aboard first European ships to settle Australia were convicts.

The first European settlers arrived in Australia in the First Fleet.


The total number of free people was 348 and the total number of prisoners was 696, coming to a total of 1044 persons.

This is supported by a quote from the Empire Newspaper of 1850:

The founders of the colony therefore consisted of one free person to every two prisoners.

(Your childhood vision was inaccurate though. The same sources indicate over 200 marines were also sent. The convicts were still under the control of the British military.)

The Second Fleet was predominantly convicts. Over 1000 convicts left England, but there were many hundreds of deaths on the voyage or shortly afterwards. Ref, Ref

It should be noted that not all British Settlements were penal settlements. Example

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    It's also important to note that many of the convicts' crimes were mild like "cutting down a tree" or "stealing an animal" or "stealing goods worth over £78" (5 shillings in 1788). Also very few Australian's can trace their roots to convicts: "The number of convicts pales in comparison to the immigrants who arrived in Australia in the 1851–1871 gold rush" - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convicts_in_Australia
    – Coomie
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 at 6:59
  • @Coomie - I'd imagine some may also have been defaulted borrowers.
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 13:19
  • In my (Australian) office the 5 closest people to me are ethnically Chinese, South African, Italian, British and Brazilian. All either first or second generation migrants. I can trace my family back 5 generations and even then my ancestors were settlers, not convicts. "Almost 50% of the 2006 population were either born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas." - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiculturalism_in_Australia
    – Coomie
    Commented Apr 18, 2013 at 3:18

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